A Phil Ivey Story
The first thing I heard was the roar of the engine.
It was Phil Ivey’s silver Mercedes SLR McLaren and the beast was barreling straight towards me.
If I ever get flattened by a motor vehicle, I hope to hell it’s a $285,000 luxury car. What a way to go out with a bang. Far more chivalrous getting mowed down by Ivey who’s late for his golf match than being mashed by some late-night boozer wheeling a Dodge Neon.
Somehow I managed to survive that instant in the parking lot at TPC Las Vegas. Question was, would I survive a full 18 holes playing with Ivey?
Let’s start with the obvious problem. I’m a terrible golfer.
Make that worse than terrible. What’s a stronger adjective?
I’m horrifically shitty. In other words, my golf game stinks.
Phil Ivey and Greg Raymer have no idea what they’re in for today. Witnessing my golf game and sharing the embarrassment of me windmilling my way across the prairie will be like hauling an anvil around what I’m told is a six-mile, 18-hole golf course. And, we must walk it all. Carts aren’t permitted here.
Now, here’s where you have to understand what golf is really all about. Anyone who thinks golf is about chasing some little white ball around a park and trying to hit it into a tiny hole doesn’t have a fucking clue. Golf is about two things — status and power.
Unfortunately, you can’t fake either. Which pretty much leaves me fucked.
It’s why million-dollar business deals are often conducted on golf courses. Golfing an acceptable excuse for grown men to all hang out together for hours and hours, while mostly firewalling the women, children, and other undesirables. It’s like being inside a private conference room, only there’s no chance of interruptions, unless it rains, of course. Then, there are the obvious advantages of fresh air and sunshine.
However, we have no business to conduct on this day. It’s a threesome of Ivey, Raymer, and Dalla — the motleyest of poker crews. Between the three of us, we’ve won a combined nine WSOP gold bracelets and more than $20 million in career poker tournament prize money. Of course, I’ve appeared at no less than 800 World Series of Poker final tables, which leaves both Ivey and Raymer eating my dust.
Before we reach the first tee, the banter begins.
Since we’re walking the entire course (walking!), Ivey can’t possibly be burdened with hauling around his own 35-pound bag of golf clubs. So, he’s dispatched his own private caddy to assist. Meanwhile, Raymer and I are standing there in the desert heat like two prisoners getting ready to go on the Bataan Death March. At least I’ve got a legitimate excuse for forgetting to “notify” my private caddy of the date and time. Uh, I don’t have a caddy! But Raymer’s got no excuse. He’s got the bucks and certainly could use an assistant, but it too tight to shell out a $100 for a bag man. So, he has to schlub his own clubs around the entire course like me.
Well, of course, nothing goes according to plan — Ivey’s caddy is late.
We’re the three most important people in all of Las Vegas, and the caddy can’t get his ass to the course on time. Well, Ivey isn’t teeing off without his “man,” he says, so we’re stuck standing in the hot sun sweating like two parched pirates.
Finally, Ivey’s “man” shows up. Little shit cost us perhaps 20 minutes. I haven’t even fucking tee-ed off yet, and already my left shoulder is aching from carrying a bag of 15-year-old irons I picked up at a garage sale.
“This is Steven,” says Ivey — pretty much oblivious to the normal protocol of handshakes. [Footnote 1]
At this point, Ivey makes it clear that Steven is to carry only his bag. We’re left to haul around our own lawn lumber. Moreover, Ivey makes it clear Steven is not to give the two of us any advice. Not that either me or Raymer have the skills to take advantage of insider information about things like the approach pitch to a certain green having a deceptive slope that leads to a water hazard. Ivey’s all miked up with the latest intelligence, and Raymer and I are floundering to make it to the first tee box.
Fast forward a few hours later and I’ve scored an honest 86, which actually sounds like a decent score until one considers that I still had to play the back nine.
About half an hour around the clubhouse, I found myself standing alone with Ivey’s caddy and decided to learn a bit more about “the man.”
“So, do you caddy for Phil very often,” I asked?
“Okay. So, do you play golf, too?”
I’m starting to feel like I’m talking to Harpo Marx.
“So, do you live around here?”
Where at? (Fuck it — by this time I’m throwing caution to the wind. I want to find out where this smirky kid lives and how much Ivey pays him to haul around his bags for a round of golf…..which is probably more money than I make on my best day — hell, even my best week.)
“I live in that big yellow house right next to the eighth hole fairway.”
By this time, Ivey has pitched a perfect shot onto the green and has now re-emerged into our tiny circle and the conversation.
“Oh wow — so you live here on the golf course. That must be pretty nice.”
“Yeah. It’s nice.”
At this point, I’m freerolling for information here. How is it that Ivey has some 14-year-old rich kid as his own private caddy? I mean, you don’t just run an ad on Craig’s List and expect to get pedigree talent like this.
“So, what does your father do,” I ask — expecting the link to be some casino executive that Ivey has befriended, which provided an introduction to a young man no doubt smitten by the chance to caddy for a celebrity like Phil Ivey.
“He’s a senator.”
Wow, a senator, I thought. That’s impressive. I figure the kid was some state senator’s son. Not exactly major league, but not bad on the power list.
“You mean like a state senator, up in Reno?” I asked.
By this time, Ivey is looking annoyed. I’ve got about one or two questions left before the gate comes down on this conversation and I lose my opportunity.
“No. My dad’s a United States Senator.”
Holy shit! There are only 100 of those in the entire country, and they are among the most powerful and well-known people in government. And here was the son of a United States Senator trolling around Ivey’s golf clubs.
“I know Senator Harry Reid’s kids are all grown up you look nothing like Rory Reid. That leaves just one possibility. Is your last name Ensign?”
“Yeah, that would be me.”
I must say, that’s impressive. Having the United States Senator John Ensign’s son doing all of Ivey’s labor.
“Wow, Phil — now that’s a success. Having a U.S. Senator’s son to caddy for you.”
Ivey didn’t even blink.
“No, Nolan — that’s not success. Having THE SENATOR caddy for you. Now, that would be success.”
Since that golf outing, Senator John Ensign resigned his U.S. Senate seat. In fact, he hasn’t been seen much in public since then.
Any word on if John Ensign is caddying for Ivey now?
* * *
Our golf match ends with what I think is a remarkable story, which shows the extraordinary code of honor which exists among some gamblers.
I was clearly out of Ivey’s league when it came to betting. Still, we bet a few dollars and Ivey took it every bit as seriously as if he was playing the final round of The Masters. Even Greg “Fossilman” Raymer, considerably more flush with cash than I was, couldn’t touch Ivey in the “action” department.
So starved for real betting action, what did Ivey do?
As we were approaching the 15th tee box, Ivey reached into his pocket and pulled out a cell phone. He speed-dialed and the following (half) of the conversation could be heard:
IVEY: “Hey Chip — I’m here playing the back nine at Spanish Trails. I” ve got a par- 5 coming up. I think its a little over 500 yards. I feel good. I think I can par it. You want to book my action?”
Obviously, Chip Reese is on the other end of this conversation. I have no idea what’s being said.
IVEY: “Okay, for how much?”
IVEY: “Ten-thousand. Sounds good. I”ll call you back in about ten minutes.”
Ivey tees off and cracks the perfect airliner takeoff between two towering pines down the center fairway. Chip Reese is fucked. Ten minutes later, Ivey is standing on the green and down in five. Effortless. Out comes the cell phone once again.
IVEY: “You owe me ten thousand.”
IVEY: “You want to go again on the next hole? I figure it’s a par-4.”
IVEY: “Alright, so we’ll just add the ten-thousand to the balance. I’ll talk to you tonight.”
And that was it.
What was most remarkable about the exchange was Chip Reese never asking to verify that Ivey had indeed shot par on the hole. There was no request for proof or verification. Ivey was simply taken at his word, and that was that. Ten thousand dollars in the bank.
Sadly, the great Chip Reese died a few months after this exchange. I suppose it was one of a great many wagers made between them and probably wasn’t even that big of a deal.
But the story illustrates an astonishing gamblers’ code which would be unthinkable among just about any other group, even the closest of friends. Ivey’s win and a ten-thousand-dollar debt were accepted based solely on his word.
When I try and explain what the inner world of high-stakes gamblers and poker players is really like, I think this little story illustrates the very best about some of those we revere.
And rightly so.
Footnote: The name of the caddy has been changed since he’s a minor and I do not have consent to use his name in this story.